The Second Rule of Write Club…

Posted: April 28, 2014 in Keeping It Novel - Bare Necessities
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If the first rule of write club is ‘read, read and read some more’ – and it is – then the second is write, write and keep writing.

If you dream of being ‘a writer’, whatever that may mean to you, you must practice your skills. Whether you spill your thoughts onto the page for your own eyes only, in order to achieve inner clarity, or your visions include publishing success of the Rowling or King standard, it is imperative that you set aside time to hone your abilities.

Wordsmithing is an art, as any other, and as one would not expect to become a prima ballerina after one class, one cannot hope to fulfil their potential as a writer with their first poem or manuscript. Practice may never make perfect, but it will make a damn sight better than none.

Only through this commitment to writing as much as possible can we discover our own style, our own methods and systems, and the beauty that only we can share with the world through the individual way in which we translate it into language.

Every person is different; we all have our own idiosyncrasies, habits and viewpoints, and our own ways of presenting them to the world.  As writers, we can express that individuality through the exploration of our own styles: the way in which we express something – the words we use and the way we use them – can be used to imply so much more than the words can ever say on their own. Before we can do this though, we need to take the time to discover what that style is, and I am afraid that the only way we can do that is with practice.

Whether you only have ten minutes a day – or an hour a week, or whatever – to set aside, make sure you do. Mark it up on the family calendar to let everyone know you’re to be left alone or programme it into your phone to remind yourself– make the commitment and stick to it. If you are serious about being a writer, you simply must set aside the time – you wouldn’t expect to join the Olympic gymnasts’ team without having first practiced for hours, every day, for ten years, and you cannot expect to be a great writer without that same dedication.

I’m afraid the bad news is that just like an Olympic gymnast, the fun doesn’t stop once you make the team. Finishing your book/getting an agent/getting published (congrats!)/selling a million copies (uh, can you introduce me to your agent, please?) does not mean you can put down the pen or close the laptop. Even the greatest writers always have more to learn, and I’d be willing to bet my car that if you asked them, Stephen King, Tamora Pierce and J.K Rowling would all say that even they, amazing authors who have sold millions of books, still have something to learn about the craft (Please don’t say otherwise, guys – I need my car!).

So whether you’re writing a novel, a short story, a poem, or nothing in particular at the moment, make sure you keep up the practice. Even when you feel like you have the mother of all bouts of writer’s block, put down whatever you’re (not) working on, pick a writing exercise from the thousands available on the internet (or the ten I’ll list below) and spend half an hour refining your talents. Sometimes it can serve to clear your block, but if not, you can walk away from your keyboard/pen feeling like you’ve at least written something.

So, a few exercises to get you going:

1. Free Writing (or free association) 

It doesn’t get much simpler. Pull up a new Word document, open up your notebook to a blank page, pull  a scrap of envelope towards you, and get writing. Whatever comes into your head: no matter if it seems silly, or like it might not go anywhere, just write for the sheer pleasure of writing. Once in a while, you’ll come up with something stellar, and the rest of the time, you’ll be honing and refining your skills as a writer, ready for when you next open up that dreaded work-in-progress.

2. Emulate your favourite authors – but remember to stop doing it! 

One of the most important obstacles any new writer has to overcome is that elusive ‘voice’ we are all tasked with finding. When you find an author you love; perhaps it is the way they turn a particular phrase, or the breadth of their vocabulary; try writing a paragraph of your current WIP in their voice. This exercise will enable you to improve your versatility as a writer. It is important that you find your own voice, of course, but in the meantime, trying on those of other, already successful authors can help you get a feel for what yours might be. *

Once you’ve written a paragraph or two, try to analyse what it is about the way they write that you love. This should be easier once you’ve written a… mile in their…chair? See if there are any elements of their style that you could incorporate into your own. Notice that I said incorporate there: you don’t want to simply copy their style – what would be the point in that? **

* Note: Remember to make sure you remove this paragraph later; you don’t want a strangely out-of-character passage popping up in your novel! Better yet – write it in a new document.

** This is a good exercise to do when you only have ten minutes spare- I wouldn’t advise doing it as a warm-up to a full-on writing session, as it can confuse your own tone and sound a little, and you may come back to what you wrote later and find it doesn’t sound anything like you!

–          A small apology, if it’s necessary… I found this passage in a Word doc, and I can’t remember if I copied it from a website or wrote it myself – it reads like I wrote it and I can’t find it online but I don’t quite recall, so this is my arse-covering footnote. Sorry if this is someone else’s – let me know and I’ll credit you!

3. Use a prompt, any prompt!

If you search the phrase ‘writing prompt’ on Google, you’ll get more hits than you can shake a stick at. I just tried it and got almost 16million results back. Many users on Twitter and Facebook also provide writing prompts for their followers: one of the more popular at the moment on ‘the Twittersphere’ provides participants with a simple idea and asks them to write a whole story on the theme in just six words or less. Prompts can take the form of a word or phrase, a photo, or pretty much anything – it is simply a beginning for you to build upon.

Writing prompts can be a great way to give your brain a little jump start: on those days when you’ve been slogging your way through that 100K manuscript that’s been haunting you for months and you just don’t feel that the creativity is flowing anymore, these prompt-begotten mini-projects can let your brain stretch its legs a little. It knows what’s going into your main project, and has done for months – it’s writing it out that’s the problem. This activity can give your brain a little respite, allowing it to think on something different for a little while, and help it to re-fire up the creativity neurons which have been slowly stagnating.

Using a prompt can be fascinating: firstly, it’s great fun to see how much of a tangent your brain wants to take you on from the initial prompt, and secondly, I always find it amazing to see what someone else took from the same prompt. Just a couple of words, or a simple picture, and two peoples’ minds can go running off in utterly opposite directions.

4. Journaling

The act of keeping a journal, or diary, has a strange stigma attached to it; if you keep a diary, you must be a 12-year-old girl. While it is true that what comes to mind when we hear the word ‘diary’ is the adolescent whinings of a love-struck/woe-is-me/occasionally genius teenager, keeping a journal (or diary!) can be a most rewarding process. Firstly, it is a commitment to write, each day, about whatever is important to you on that day. These little notes to yourself could even one day become the inspiration for a whole novel. Many of our day-to-day experiences fade over time, and we forget the wonderful woman we met on the train who told us that fantastic anecdote, or the old man we saw who seemed to have a lifetime’s worth of stories in his eyes, but it is these encounters which fuel the mind of a writer. It is important to meet, learn about and catalogue as many different people as we can, because without doing so, how can we possibly begin to know the vast variety of people we share this planet with? And without knowing them, at least a little, how can we write about them? As Hemingway said, “when writing a novel a writer should create living people; people not characters. A character is caricature.” We must study those around us in order to be able to create our own ‘people’.

Use a journal to remember the people you meet, the places you see, the foods you eat, the books you read. The mind can only hold so much, and new memories make the old ones fade, so it’s important to try and preserve the things we have learnt for as long as we can.

5. Reading

While not technically a writing exercise, as you won’t be doing any writing, reading is a great way to get the writing juices flowing again. If you find yourself a little stuck, try reading something in the same genre as you are writing: it might help relax you a little so that when you sit back down to work again things are a little easier.

6. Eavesdrop

I know your mother told you not to, but eavesdropping is a wonderful activity for writers: especially those who struggle to write natural-sounding dialogue. On the train, in a café, or sitting in the park, the conversations other people have can be both fascinating and a goldmine of information. Every individual has particular ways of speaking; gestures and gesticulations, intonation, pitch; and the more you learn about these, the more you can ascribe them to your characters without it feeling shoved in there. Take lots of notes as you listen, as it’s very easy to forget the things you spent the afternoon learning once the kids get home and start yelling about tea, or some moron cuts you up on the way home and sends it all flying straight from your head before you manage to get to your keyboard.

7. Who, Where, When, What?

Take a plain piece of paper, and divide it into four vertical columns. In the first column, list every type of person you can think of: fireman, vet, policeman, your mother, lawyer, a fisherman, crack whore, etc. In the second column, list as many places as you can: the café, the library, Iceland, Atlantis, the moon, the vets, your mother-in-law’s, etc. In the third, list time periods or historical events: the Edwardian Era, the sinking of the Titanic, the storming of the beaches at Normandy, the fall of Troy, the 60s, etc. And in the fourth and final column, list possible triggers for the story’s beginning: a murder, a wedding, a zombie outbreak, aliens attack… anything is game, and the wackier, the crazier (and possibly more awesome) your story will end up.

Pick any four items (one from each column) and try to write a piece which incorporates them. For example, you might write about your mother-in-law finding a murdered body prior to the sinking of the Titanic and turning all Clouseau on you, or a fireman in Iceland who has heard about an alien attack in Paris and is the only human who can communicate with the aliens to save us all. The possibilities are limited only by your own imagination.

8. Pick a topic, any topic

And go research it. Search online, go to the library, ask whoever you can. Nine times out of ten, when I go and research something for a project, I end up with another ten ideas for stories I could write on the same topic. The world is absolutely chock-full of fascinating information and frankly, we owe it to ourselves to learn as much as we can. The more we learn about, the more we learn there is to write about!

9. Start at the end.

That’s right, you heard me. At the end.

So you’ve got this magnificent idea, but you just can’t seem to get yourself started. You’ve tried a hundred different starting points, different POVs, even switching up which character is your protagonist; your little darling; and none of it’s working. So, try starting at the end. Write the epic death of your main character as if your readers have already grown to know and love him/her. Write your intricately planned plot twist without having to spend months of hard work getting there. Instant gratification and a bit of incentive for you to finish the rest: look how awesome my ending is, it’d be a travesty not to write the whole thing.

10. Switch it up

Copy your document. (I can’t stress this enough – the first step of this exercise must be to create a copy/throwaway/extra version of your manuscript.) Now, in the new, not original, not-important-copy version, pick any point in your story so far. Add in a completely off-the-wall detail or event or new character and see where it takes your original story. Make it something which absolutely would not normally fit into your story, and try and make it fit. After all, you are the author, which makes you the almighty and all-powerful MegaGod to these people you’ve created. You can do anything you want, to whoever you want (in your book, it’s important to remember. You can do anything to your characters – people on the street are not fair game.) So your main character is getting married on page 50? That’s great – in the new version, have aliens appear at the wedding and abscond with her almost-husband, and write about her quest to retrieve him. Or say you’ve been writing a political thriller: have your president suddenly decide he wants to quit leading the free world and become a pro-golfer.

Often, this exercise won’t contribute all that much to the original story you were writing, but it is great fun and fantastic practice. And who knows, maybe you’ll decide her wedding day was vastly improved by the disappearance of her husband, or that the president really does belong in golf.

 

So, friends, go forth and write. Create, build and fashion the world you want to see with the soft strokes of your fingertips on the keyboard. There is no greater power than that of the writer.

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Comments
  1. I especially liked point number 5. It seems like whenever I get home after a writers guild meeting, I start slapping away at the keyboard for hours. Also wanting to have something ready for a future meeting serves as my proverbial cattle prod 🙂

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